Here's Part 1 of "Travels with the Briggs-Keenans".
After 18 months of preparation, of exponentially-increasing feverishness,
we finally left home at 3:30 pm on Friday 27th September. We spent our
first night on the road camping wild. We took pot luck on a place that was
just a tiny unnamed patch of green on the map, a few kilometres west of
Maryborough. Well actually, on the map it was only a few _millimetres_ west
of Maryborough, provided you were holding the map the right way, but you
know what I mean.
We didn't put up the tent, but tested the everyone-sleeping-in-the-Tarago
capability. "It's possible", is the best I can say for it. We did it
because we were keen to meet up with my brother and his family who were
camping at Cape Hillsborough Nature Resort, north of Mackay. It certainly
allowed us to get away early. Early enough for Janelle to get a speeding
We arrived at Cape Hillsborough with only about half an hour of daylight in
which to set up camp, and Janelle went to the office to ask where the other
Keenans were camped. Janelle was careful to spell "Keenan" for them. They
could find no record of any Keenan. So I'm in the car phoning everyone I
can think of, to find out where they might be, and only succeeding in
making these people worried, while Janelle is walking around the campground
looking for their car.
Janelle usually drives, and had taken her keys with her. I needed to wind
down the windows, and since they are electric I had to use my key. (Why am
I mentioning this seemingly insignificant detail? You'll see!) Eventually
we gave up as it got dark, and decide that we had to camp there anyway.
While Janelle is filling out the register she looks up the page a bit and
says "What's this then?", pointing to an entry marked "Keenan". "Oh,
'Keenan' the guy says, "I thought you said "Kiernan". Janelle says "Er.
That's why I spelled it for you". Sigh. My theory is that Cape Hillsborough
is such a laid-back place it's practically comatose. Either that or the guy
should cut down on his dope smoking.
So we found the other Keenans in a cabin at the farthest end of the
campground, and after warm greetings proceded to set up our camp next door,
in complete darkness, while they kindly made us a cup of tea. Janelle told
me she had both sets of keys in her pocket, mine and hers. (Be patient).
Janelle cooked dinner at our camp and we ate it in the cabin with Paul and
Kelly and Brendan and Cassandra. I went in last and locked the van before I
went in, since I didn't fancy the laptop going walkabout. A few minutes
later Janelle went to get something from the van. As she got up I said
"It's locked". She says "Where are the keys?". I say "You're joking aren't
you". She wasn't!
Why is it that women's clothes rarely have pockets, and when they do, they
are totally impractical for actual use? As we were setting up camp, she had
found the keys to be uncomfortable and had put both sets of keys down ...
IN THE VAN!
Now I have to admit that in fact I did a similar thing a few months
previously, when I assumed that the back hatch, like all the other doors,
even if pre-locked, would not remain so, if it was closed without holding
the handle out. WRONG!
So I knew from bitter experience how to break in. But I'm not about to tell
you, am I! Suffice it to say that anyone watching the process would wince
at the brutality of it, and assume the car would require major surgery
afterwards. But somehow it doesn't.
Since we routinely use the toolbox as a seat, (it's good if things have
more than one use when you've got limited space) it was already out of the
van. The blokes among you will be familiar with the folklore that a _real_
man can fix anthing with a wire coathanger and a roll of gaffer tape. When
the unbent coathanger from the toolbox failed to produce results, we sent
the kids scouting by torchlight for sticks of just the right thickness and
Thanks to my brother's keen powers of observation, I eventually realised I
was supposed to be pulling, not pushing, and succeeded in releasing a lock,
whereupon the alarm system freaked and woke up the entire camp! But not
only that, it promptly set the lock again before I could open the door.
This hadn't happened the first time, a few months back. Somehow the alarm
mustn't have been armed that time.
I decided it was prudent to wait until _late_ the next morning before
trying again. Luckily all our bedding was already in the tent. But no soap
or towels or toothbrushes or changes of clothes. We were not happy
Next morning, with Janelle nagging me to call the RACQ, I managed to hold
out until I was confident the whole camp was awake, and finally, with
Janelle's help, managed to precisely time the unlocking and door opening,
upon which followed the mad scrambling to get the keys and convince the
bloody alarm system that we were in fact legitimate enterers, and it could
therefore bloody well shut up.
We then made an agreement to _never_ lock the van again, except by the use
of a key.
The kids and Janelle had already been down to the beach, and Janelle
casually said to me, "You really should go and take a look at the beach."
So I wandered down thru the trees and onto the beach. The sight that
greeted my eyes was so wonderful that I let out a long sigh of
satisfaction. We really were on holidays.
-- Dave Keenan
OK. We weakened and bought a digital camera (Olympus C-300, 3 Megapixel
with 2.8x optical zoom). We also got our last roll of film put on CD and
our earlier negatives scanned (by Kodak Express at Alice Springs).
Unfortunately they did a lousy job on the earlier negatives. I've included
a photo that belongs with Part 1 of the saga and one for this part.
Amazingly we didn't take a single photo at Cape Hillsborough.
The little bay in which Cape Hillsborough resort is nestled has a tor at
one cusp, and on the other an island that can be reached by a causeway at
low tide. Both face cliffs on the mainland. There are numerous small caves
formed both by tumbles of big pieces of rock broken away from these cliff
faces, and by erosion from the ocean.
The first such cave, just south of the beach, seemed to be full of
coconuts. Whether because children had collected them, or they had
collected there naturally I do not know. Their husks were scattered all
over the camp ground, so we husked, milked and ate a couple ourselves. Very
nice. Hunter wanted us to take some with us when we left, and we insisted
that, if so, he husk them himself. He very patiently and carefully did so,
using our tomahawk that doubles as the tent-peg hammer.
At the ocean's edge the water sparkles with suspended mica flakes.
Marvelous views were available from various lookouts on a 2 km walking
track to one of the headlands.
Lest this read too much like a tourism advertising brochure, I feel obliged
to mention that there _were_ some nasty biting midges. But what the
After our second night there, we headed north for Proserpine. Named, as I
understand it, for the godess of spring, sometimes called Persephone. This
is very obviously sugar cane country. Some of the smaller towns consist of
very little besides the sugar mill with its huge smokestack. In particular
at Marion, you felt you were driving through the middle of the mill, with
conveyor belts and pipes criss-crossing the highway above the
At one stage we drove right beside a burning cane field, only metres away
from the road. It seems opinion is still divided on the relative merits of
"to burn or not to burn". The flames were leaping to a height of two
storeys. The kids understandably found this somewhat alarming and needed
reasurance that this was a perfectly normal event in this part of the
Going to Proserpine was something of a pilgrimage for me. Specifically
Telford Street, Proserpine, since this street was my entire universe from
ages zero to four. The pilgrimage also consisted in meeting a wonderful old
woman named Una Bolam, who I consider my third grandmother; the only
surviving one. She lived next door to my parents and I during those years
in Telford Street and she and her husband Bob (deceased) and their teenage
daughters Kay and Fay (twins) and Rhonda, were a great source of support
for this new little nuclear family, far from its roots.
Alas, all is not well with Una's own family just now. Rhonda and Fay were
in Brisbane because Fay was about to undergo yet another operation for
brain cancer. Kay was soon to follow to lend her support.
We met Una at her Proserpine retirement unit with hugs all 'round, and
after much talk and a lovely salad lunch and several cups of tea with home
made biscuits and cakes, I asked her if she would accompany us to Telford
Street. She sat in the front of the Tarago and Janelle sat in the back with
When we were nearly there we had to stop at a train crossing while a sugar
train moved slowly into the nearby mill. The kids enjoyed watching the
antics of dozens of Rainbow Lorikeets on top of the rail trucks, apparently
eating spilled sugar. Una casually asked about the technology arrayed in
front of her in the van, the CDMA mobile phone in its cradle and its
external speaker and microphone (so everyone in the vehicle can hear and be
heard by the other party), and rather than answering directly I thought,
"Of course! I should phone Mum and Dad, right now, so they can be with us
as we enter Telford Street." Dad answered and I told him what we were
doing, so he went and got Mum and they both chatted to Una while we waited
for the train. Una was laughing and saying "This is too much", and "I won't
sleep a wink tonight after all this". Then the crossing gates opened and we
turned into Telford Street. While I gave a running comentary for Mum and
Dad, Una continued to express how overwhelmed she was by this
technically-mediated reunion of people and place after nearly forty
We also met Kay briefly before we left. Again I was treated as a close
friend or long-lost relative. It was difficult to leave this loving family.
As we were leaving, Kay, now 52, asked me to say what I used to say from
the other side of their fence at age four, when she was a 13 year old
"Mrs Bolam, I want to come over".
Part 3: From the Gemfields to Watzing Matilda
After leaving Proserpine we headed back towards Mackay and then inland to
the hills of Eungella National Park. Pronounced YUNG-g-la. We arrived just
after dark and found a sign which seemed to be saying that we couldn't camp
there unless we had previously booked. Not having much in the way of other
options, we drove in and checked it out anyway. There were a number of
vacant campsites and so we filled out a self-registration form and paid our
money and camped, fully prepared to vacate the spot if someone arrived and
said they had booked it. This didn't happen.
In the morning after breakfast, we found that one of the tyres on the
Tarago had gone down somewhat during the night. A slow leak. We packed up
camp and drove slowly to nearby Finch Hatton where the female Service
Station owner told us her tyre-fitter had gone AWOL. So she just pumped it
up again for us and we drove off to enjoy the day at nearby Finch Hatton
Gorge. [Photo 3.1. Fortunately this is the last of those ghastly blueish
We pumped up the tyre again at Finch Hatton and camped the night at Marion.
Next morning we drove to the outskirts of Mackay where we got the tyre
fixed and headed southwest to the gemfields. We stopped for a picnic lunch
at Hood's Lagoon, Clermont, then on to Emerald.
We stayed the night just outside Emerald, at Keily's farm and animal
sanctuary, where the kids enjoyed feeding the animals. They also enjoyed
the sapphire mine at Rubyvale, where they went down a mine and (when back
on the surface) washed a bucket of "wash" for sapphires. They found several
small ones, one of which was just large enough to be worth cutting. This of
course was a great thrill for them.
We headed west then, and spent the night at a campground at the
blink'n-miss-it town of Alpha, where we unexpectedly found a Telstra CDMA
base-station and realised that the maps we obtained from their website
before setting out, were out-of-date.
Next morning it was on to Barcaldine, centre of the 1891 shearers strike. I
feel a great resonance between this event and my own nonviolent
social-justice-based politics. The words of the Bushwacker's song kept
echoing thru my mind. We spent most of the day at the Australian Workers
Heritage Centre and then took photos under the "Tree of Knowledge" where
the strike meetings were held.
We stayed two nights at Longreach, visiting the Stockman's Hall of Fame in
between. These places, like the Workers Heritage Centre and Stockman's Hall
are generally a lot more interesting for adults than kids, except for the
ice-creams. The kids also enjoyed the ice-cold pool at the caravan park. We
noted that there were "dive in" movies on offer at the municipal
Apart from the water in the rare swimming pools and the rarer waterholes,
it is so dry out here that dust takes the place of water, at least I saw it
running down the back window of the van in rivulets once, after we stopped.
Presumably held there by static electricity.
Winton: After having spent the previous few days in air conditioned
complexes with dioramas and video displays telling us all about the
outback, when we came to yet another one, the Waltzing Matilda Centre at
Winton, we said "enough", "let's get dirty".
So we headed for a place with the odd name of Bough Shed Hole - 3 seemingly
unrelated nouns - within Bladensburg National Park, 15 km (of mostly
unsealed roads) south of Winton. And we spent the night there, camped by a
billbong, under the shade of ... Well you know the rest. And down, indeed,
came some jumbucks to drink at the waterhole, along with the kangaroos, but
fortunately for them, these particular swagmen were vegetarians. [Photo
Part 4: Mt Isa - Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill) National Park
From Bladensburg National Park we returned to Winton and checked out
Arno's Wall, a stone wall with many strange ancient objects embedded in it,
including a motorcycle [Photo 4.1], and the original Winton settlement. 165
km west of Winton we stopped at the Kynuna roadhouse and ate lunch in their
picnic shed in a hot wind. A group of tame brolgas were very happy when we
rinsed our plates and cups under a tap there, since they could drink the
water that ran onto the ground. We also visited the alternative "Waltzing
Matilda Centre". Which was basically some lovely old guy's shed, with free
entry and lots of Banjo Paterson memorabilia and local artwork, free
booklets on the history of the area, and a polite request for a donation
near the exit. What a delightful change from the previous expensive tourist
traps. Apparently this "lovely old guy" earned an OBE for his reasearch
into Australian history. Richard Magoffin.
We camped the night in a rest area halfway between Cloncurry and Mt Isa. I
convinced the kids, but not Janelle, to sleep "under the stars", on a
polytarp spread on the ground. This was a nice idea, but somewhat spoiled
by the bastard camped next to us, who insisted on spreading his
light-pollution everywhere, with his fluorescent-tube lantern. It could
have been worse, it could have been a gas lantern or a generator! By the
time he turned it off, the kids had fallen asleep.
These days we only use LED head-torches when camping. The head-torch is the
ultimate, leaving your hands free and only putting light where you need it,
and dim light at that, so it doesn't totally blow your night-vision. But
you do have to remember not to look people in the eyes when talking to
them! The batteries last about 10 times as long as they do in an
incandescent torch. And we use NiMH rechargeables anyway. Head torches,
batteries and car charger all from Jaycar Electronics.
Next morning the kids and I woke naturally before dawn and watched the sun
rise while sitting up in our sleeping bags. That was pretty
The town of Mt Isa (population 27,000) only exists because of the Copper,
Silver, Lead and Zinc mine in the hills there. [Photo 4.2] The caravan park
we stayed at in Mt Isa was an oasis of green grass and trees amid the
surrounding dust and rocks and mulga bushes. It was maintained in this
unnatural state by vast quantities of precious bore-water and men on
bicycles constantly moving sprinklers.
We set up camp, then took the kids for a swim in the pool. That night we
had dinner at an air-conditioned Chinese restaurant in Mt Isa.
We thought we would like to visit Boodjamulla National Park (also known as
Lawn Hill National Park) which is 200 km of mostly unsealed road north of
the highway between Mt Isa and Camooweal. The turnoff is about 100 km west
of Mt Isa. This would then be the northernmost and potentially the hottest
part of our trip. Janelle discussed with the caravan park owner whether it
could be done without a high-clearance four wheel drive vehicle, as the
various books we had were unclear on this point. She said she and her
husband had done it in a two-wheel drive, and she looked at the Tarago and
said, "You'd be alright in that", but she added that they usually blew a
tyre, and she suggested we take two spares. Unfortunately this was out of
the question. There was simply nowhere to put it short of some expensive
modification to carry it on some kind of bracket at the front, and then
we'd have to buy the additional tyre and rim, and its air-drag would
increase fuel consumption on the entire remainder of our journey. We
decided to risk it with one spare, since other travelers we had met along
the way had insisted it was well worth it.
We calculated that we could just make it to Boodjamulla and back to
Camooweal on the tank-full, including an assumption that our fuel
consumption on the unsealed road would be quite high. There was also a
fallback position that required an 80 km detour to Gregory Downs to get
extra fuel if necessary, before returning. As with the second spare wheel,
there was nowhere safe to carry a jerry can either.
Janelle drove as usual and was pleased to find many kilometres of new
bitumen at the start of the road north. When it finally went to dirt it was
also excellent, and we thought we'd be laughing all the way to Boodjamulla.
And then, we hit it! The _real_ unsealed road. We realised that the
previous kilometres of excellent unsealed road had been merely the
carefully prepared roadbase for the bitumen that was slowly growing
The road had deep corrugations with large rocks sticking up everywhere and
deep wheel ruts with piles of stones in between them. We started to
regularly see the carcasses of dead tyres, and indeed the bodies of
occasional dead cars. After a few kilometres of this Janelle said she
didn't want to go on. I said "Maybe it's not all this bad, and we've come
so far now (150 km) I don't want to turn back". So I took over driving.
Janelle still found it stressful until she sat in the back so she couldn't
see so much of what was coming. Of course the kids had no problem with any
of this, blissfully assuming that the adults who were their guardians knew
what they were doing!
I was right, much of it was not as bad, it was worse! With the
corrugations, there are two choices. Drive slower than 20 km per hour so
you don't get shaken to pieces by them, or drive faster than 70 km per hour
so you ride over the tops of them (or something). Anything in between would
threaten to rattle your teeth out of your head, and goodness knows what it
would do to the vehicle. The disadvantage of going slow was that it would
take several days to get there and camping by the roadside would be hot and
difficult. The disadvantage of going fast was the lack of steering control
I eventually increased in confidence when travelling at 70 km per hour, but
there were other hazards like the dips of the dry creekbeds where the
suspension would bottom out if you didn't slow right down, and the patches
of bulldust where everything went blissfully silent as you sailed thru it,
the only effect of the wheels being to act like rudders; and hoping that
you would manage to sail out the other side, still pointing in the
direction you wanted to go. It was incredibly stressful trying to respond
in time to the oncoming rocks and things. My knuckles where white on the
steering wheel, but I refused to give in.
We laughed darkly at a sign which told us to slow down to 80 km/hr at one
corner. 80 km/hr! I was never game to get up to that on even the _best_
straights. You'd have to be insane to take that corner at 80. And then
there was the sign that said "Rough surface. Reduce speed". These guys sure
sure have a sense of humour. The road following this sign was completely
indistinguishable from that before it.
We stopped briefly at the world heritage Riversleigh D fossil site where
the indoor-outdoor thermometer told us it was 48^C outside. Unbelievable.
Until this, ambient temperatures above 37^C were merely an abstract
concept. It was, as I imagine, the air off a blast-furnace.
We eventually reached the entrance to the park, where the 40 km/hr
speed-limit forced us to travel at 20 km/hr or less. By some miracle we had
made it without losing a tyre. The fuel gauge read just under half-full, as
Janelle was saying "This had better be really good", with the obvious
subtext "or I'll never forgive you for putting me through that". We drove
into the campground and the ground was bare dust everywhere, with few trees
for shade. There were a few other campers who seemed to have found all the
best sites. Despite being near sunset, the heat was still extreme. We
eventually found a tree under which to set up camp. You could not see the
creek for the trees lining its banks. We followed a path that led to steps
going down the bank, under some Pandanus palms, to a platform just below
water level. From this platform the sight that greeted the eyes was
astonishing. A huge waterhole about 100 m across. And when you swim out,
you look upstream to Boodjamulla Gorge with 50 m high walls. The whole
thing is continuously fed from a spring, in the middle of the desert. With
regular swims, comfort was possible.
[Slack photographers that we were, we completely failed to take any photos
The temperature did drop somewhat as the night wore on. Janelle and I got
up around midnight, disturbed by a wallaby getting into our rubbish bag.
The thermometer read 33^C.
Next morning we hired some canoes and paddled up the gorge to some falls
and at the bottom of these falls we sat in a natural spa. Hunter threw a
stick into a whirlpool. It was still going round and round when we left. A
short climb, at one part of the gorge, to view the surrounding country,
showed us that this really was an oasis.
An aboriginal ranger assured us that yesterday's temperature had been
unusual, and indeed the next two days were more comfortable, but regular
swims were still required.
The following morning, 11th of October, was Hunter's 9th birthday and he
ordered pancakes for breakfast, which Janelle cooked on the camp stove. He
was so delighted with one of his presents, a Lego Bionicle kit, that he
kept telling us so, over and over. What a lovely boy. Tara of course
thought it very unfair that she had to wait until the 17th of November for
We learnt from the canoe hirer that petrol was available at nearby Adele's
Grove, so we took on 10 litres there at $1.25 per litre before starting the
return trip. This gave us a very comfortable safety margin with which to
So it was back to that atrocious road. I felt my neural net had become
somewhat trained to the driving task by now and I began to drive a little
faster, up to 80 km/hr sometimes, and I was not so tense all the time. I
was also thankful for my adolescent experience of illegally driving an old
MG midget, with my mates, around dirt tracks in the state forest near
Several dip signs turned out to be somewhat false alarms and I guess I got
too cocky because the next one was a doozy. I heard the crash as the camp
kitchen and fridge in the back, landed again, after becoming airborne. Tara
complained of a sore neck. I slowed down, but the damage had already been
done, as we learned a few hundred metres later when we heard the pop and
felt the drag of a rear tyre expiring.
There was a big tear in the sidewall and a slight dent in the rim adjacent,
showing where the tyre had been crushed between a rock and the wheel rim,
presumably in that dip. Thanks to good teamwork between Janelle and I, it
only took 20 minutes in the heat to unpack the rear to access the spare,
change the wheel, repack and be on our way in the air conditioning again.
But of course now we lived in fear of a second puncture as there was very
little traffic on that road, with 140 km of dirt still to go, and no CDMA
phone signal. This was UHF or satellite-phone country, and we didn't have
one. We also decided that since our books said Camooweal only had a
population of 250 that we'd better go back to Mt Isa to have any chance of
getting a new tyre. This meant a longer trip than planned, and we would
really need that extra 10 litres.
We stopped at the Riversleigh D fossil site, where the temperature had been
an unbearable 48^C two days before. This time it was a slightly more
comfortable 41^C and we were able to do the short self-guided walk around a
hill with many fossil outcrops. The fossils I had seen before in other
places were difficult to distinguish from the encasing rock, so I was
astonished to see bone-white fossils, standing out very clearly against the
grey limestone as though they had been put there only yesterday. The most
astonishing was the last, which were the leg bones of a huge flightless
bird, (called "big bird") with the two leg bones and ankle and toe bones
clearly visible in 3D, emerging from the rock. I wonder how many rocks they
split before they got that one?
The shelter shed and toilets were free-form and cleverly coated in
multi-coloured sprayed concrete or something, so that they blended in with
the native rock. We didn't realise what they were until we got within a few
metres of them.
Somehow we made it back to Mt Isa without further mishap. When we filled
our 75 litre fuel tank it took 69 litres. Just as well we got that extra 10
We got directions to a tyre place. The fellow that served us there was
extremely friendly and helpful and he _sounded_ knowledgeable, but later we
realised he wasn't real bright, at least in regard to tyres.
[Skip to * * * if tyres are boring]
He turned out to be correct in pointing out that the standard Tarago tyres
had an uncommon combination of width and aspect ratio. For the technical
types, they are 215/65R15, which means 215 mm wide, having a height which
is 65% of the width, radial ply, to fit a 15 inch diameter rim. We had the
option of waiting 2 or 3 days for the right tyre to come from Townsville
(but we really didn't want to spend any more time in Mt Isa) or use a
slightly different size and replace two "on the same axle". He suggested we
use 215/60s. Luckily he didn't have any.
It was 4:45 pm on a Friday afternoon and no one was answering the phone at
the one other tyre place in Mt Isa. They were probably on the piss
(translation: drinking beer). So we went back to the caravan park for the
night and next morning got the more sensible offer of a pair of Bridgestone
205/65s, for not much more than it would have cost to get a single tyre of
the right size sent out from Townsville. As these guys pointed out, it
would be a bad idea to use 215/60s since this would make the overall wheel
diameter smaller and throw out the drive ratio and speedometer and odometer
accuracy if used on the back, and the steering geometry if used on the
front. The 205/65s would merely put 5% less tread on the road. So we tossed
the most worn of the remaining tyres and got two new 205/65R15s put on the
* * *
Janelle managed to find an aerobics class and we decided to stay another
night in Mt Isa. In the caravan park, I jacked up the car and crawled under
it to check for damage, I was horrified by what the rocks had done. A
plastic shield was completely missing from under the engine and there were
many dents in the crankcase and fuel tank and a heavy cross-member.
Thankfully nothing was leaking fluid. Subsequent driving and fuel
consumption measurements have indicated that nothing has had its function
impaired in any way.
The following morning we left for Camooweal and The Three-ways, finally
stopping at The Outback Caravan Park in Tennant Creek for the night. The
next day we went on an educational and enjoyable gold-mine tour. We had to
wear ear muffs as well as hard hats as they showed us equipment in
operation such as drills and "boggers" and "screamers". We also visited the
old Overland Telegraph Station. [Photo 4.3] Pretty amazing stuff in its
day, but now replaced by underground optic-fibre cable, with solar-powered
repeater stations, carrying up to 32,000 phone calls.
Another night at Tennant Creek and then it was on to Alice Springs,
stopping only to look at The Devil's Marbles along the way. [Photo 4.4] On
arriving at Alice Springs we had been on the road for 18 days and had
travelled 5000 km.
Writing this, as I am, some weeks after the actual events, I am indebted to
my son Hunter for the daily entries in his diary. Photos for this story
have been digitised by the crude expedient of rephotographing the film
prints under suitably diffuse light (in the back of the Tarago). Some of
the strange cloud formations are actually images of the camera reflected in
the print gloss.
Part 5a: Alice Springs - West McDonnell Ranges
We arrived at Alice Springs (pop. 27,500) in the early afternoon of Tuesday
the 15th of October. We went first to the business centre. The sun beat
mercilessly on the black bitumen carpark. Hunter and I went to the Post
Office while Janelle and Tara went to buy some supplies at Woolworths,
inside an air-conditioned shopping mall. I checked at the Post Restante
counter to see if a package had arrived from Brian in the US. It would
contain CDs with the latest version of the software tools that I use for my
electronic design work. Perhaps foolishly, I had told Brian that I expected
I could average two hours per day of such work while on this trip. The
package wasn't there, so Hunter and I headed for the air-conditioned mall.
I couldn't help noticing that the camera shop had what looked like a good
special on a certain digital camera - presumably an end-of-model runout
sale or something - but I resisted.
There's something special about the town of Alice Springs. Others have
tried to express this to me too. It seems to have something to do with this
... Back home in our coastal oases, we're used to human settlements fading
first to worldwide-urban-weeds or agriculture, before seeing anything
remotely native. Here one leaves the town centre, which (except for the
heat and black faces) could be anywhere in Australia, and there's the sandy
Todd River bed, probably looking much as it has for the past few thousand
years, bordered by River Redgums and low native vegetation and complete
with small groups of aboriginal people.
Of course, thanks to the European invasion, the aboriginal people are
wearing more colourful clothing than they did a thousand years ago. However
one can't help also noticing, in a few cases, that the introduction of
alcohol by those same invaders isn't doing them any favours.
It's sobering to remember that these are people whose recent ancestors went
thru the equivalent of the Jewish holocaust or worse. They somehow managed
to survive over a hundred years of shooting and poisoning and competition
for water and other resources, from the invaders and their animals and
mining operations, not to mention the diseases which the invaders carried
but were largely immune to. And only 35(?) years have passed since the
invaders decided the original inhabitants were human enough to be
considered citizens of their own country.
But I digress, and there's more to the specialness of "Alice" than the
abrupt return to native flora and fauna. Alice Springs shares a certain
quality with similar outback towns. I can do no better than to quote my
friend StJohn Kettle:
"... one recurring feeling I got from visiting my brother when he
worked at Tennant Creek, was that the white settlements were rather
what it might be to visit a settlement on the moon. Just subsitute
sparse scrub around Tennant for moon dust, nondescript suburbia for
settlement, [air-conditioning for atmosphere domes,] and the semi trailer
for the rocket ship. ... The entire place would starve within a month of
the last semi trailer arriving."
The difference with Alice, is that she seems to _enjoy_ being on the
We camped on the southern outskirts of Alice, at Heavitree Gap Outback
Resort, where the Rock Wallabies come down off the range for feeding at
dusk. We more-or-less used this as our base to explore the MacDonnell
Ranges both East and West, and Alice herself, over the following
Wednesday the 16th of October:
We first visted the West MacDonnell Ranges. To do this you drive west of
Alice Springs on 130 km of sealed road along a plain between two parallel
ranges. Every 20 km or so there is a turnoff and a few km of unsealed road
taking you to a gorge or gap in one of the ranges.
At Simpsons gap we found icy-cold water in the water hole, presumably
chilled by evaporation as the wind is funnelled through the gap. Here we
saw our first Perente, a large Goanna-type lizard, coming down to
The next one, Standley chasm is on aboriginal (Iwupetaka) land. That is,
it's on land where the descendants of the invaders have decided to
recognise the rights of the descendants of the original inhabitants. There
was a fee of $6 per adult to enter Standley Chasm. This was a gap between
cliffs about 50 m high and only 2 to 4 m apart. We were lucky to be there
during the short time in the middle of the day that direct sun reaches the
floor of the chasm.
That night we camped at Ellery Creek Big Hole. True to its name, this had a
very large, very deep waterhole.
[See Ellery Creek Big Hole.jpg]
The camping area had two shade structures with roofs made of dry grass
sandwiched between two layers of chicken-wire. A sort of lazy-man's thatch.
Under each were three timber platforms about 1.8 m square, raised about 600
mm off the ground, halfway between seat and table height. Just before
leaving home we had bought the optional insect-screened room for our tent.
We set it up for the first time, on one of these platforms.
[See Ellery camp.jpg]
The people in the other shelter had kids of similar ages to ours, so our
kids were happily occupied. I cooked dinner for the first time on the trip
- a TVP and dried-vege stew with lots of real potato. I think I was trying
to compete. Janelle was spending far too much time over at the other
shelter where the good-looking young Egyptian husband was preparing _their_
dinner. I learnt later that he used to run a restaurant in New Zealand. He
was cooking Kangaroo which he had bought as pet meat in Alice
The kids slept in the screen room while Janelle and I slept in the open, on
another platform. This was the first time Tara did not sleep beside me or
Janelle. We were pleased that there were no problems with this, as it had
been rather crowded with all four of us in the tent, and we looked forward
to the kids sleeping in the van while we slept in the tent.
Thursday the 17th of October:
After breakfast and packing up, our kids were keen to go down to the
waterhole for a swim with their new friends. We all immensely enjoying
swinging on a rope from an overhanging tree on a high bank and dropping
into the cold water. The water was so cold that this was the only sensible
way to get in. If you tried to do it slowly you'd never make it! Tara
insisted on trying it too, so I got in the water near where she would
splash-down, ready to retreive her. On her first try she didn't let go, but
the second was successful. Then I played a little practical joke and got
everyone worried for a few seconds when I swung far out and plunged down
deep (no sign of the bottom) and swam underwater for some way before
surfacing nearer the bank. After our swim we said goodbye to our friends
and drove off to Serpentine Gorge.
Serpentine gorge was, as you might expect, a winding one. It had no surface
water at all, but all these places have water below the sand, it's only a
question of how far. Tara could not find her sandals when we stopped here,
and so after seeing this gorge (she wore her sandshoes instead) we had to
drive back to Ellery Creek where we eventually found them near the swinging
Then we skipped the Ochre Pits and Ormiston Gorge (deciding to see them on
the way back) and went straight to the end of the bitumen at Glen Helen
Gorge. There's a pub/cafe there where the tour buses stop, and it's a short
walk to the large waterhole in this gorge on the Finke River. We had lunch
there along with a busload of middle-aged British tourists.
[See Glen Helen.jpg]
At first we chose a table on the verandah that was empty except for some
empty glasses. No sooner had we settled down than some of the aforesaid
arrived and said "We thought we had that table. Those are our glasses." We
didn't argue but moved inside and asked two ladies if we could share their
table. They said please do, and asked Hunter where he got his hat from. He
said it was Dad's old hat. They said, "It's a bobby-dazzler". I suspect he
looked to them like a miniature Crocodile Dundee. They turned out to be
from Manchester and asked lots of questions about our trip and drew many
contrasts between Britain and Outback Australia. They were a delightful
pair. In particular they knew exactly how to talk to kids in such a way as
to make the kids lives seem incredibly exciting. Which of course they are!
But the kids don't always see it that way at the time.
We camped at Ormiston Gorge that night. There was very little water in the
hole, and signs said not to put heads under due to danger of infection, but
a swim was the only way to escape the heat.
Friday the 18th of October:
Visited the Ochre Pits on the way back to Alice. The number of different
colours of ochre in these cliffs is astonishing. Apparently ochre from here
was exported as far as Queensland in pre-invasion times.
[See Ochre pits.jpg]
We got back to Alice and checked again at the Post Restante. Still no
package. Back to Woolies and the mall. And what do you know, that digital
camera that we'd seen on special before we went out to the west Macs, had
dropped $100 in price. So I checked it out and Janelle bought it. We also
put our film in to be developed, and got it put on CD as well. We gave them
the negatives from our previous two rolls and asked them to put them on CD
too. Apparently it's a totally different process if it's not done in
conjunction with developing and printing because they totally screwed up
the colour balance on these scans, as readers of the previous parts of this
travel saga will have seen. Unfortunately we didn't discover this until we
had left Alice. [Many thanks to one reader, my friend George Secor in the
US, who greatly improved their colour balance by digital means and emailed
them back to me!]
Back at the camp ground, we set up in a better location this time - under a
bottle tree - and after lunch we headed for the swimming pool where I sat
under a thatched umbrella and watched the kids and played with my new toy
(the digital camera). Janelle drove off to try to find someone who could
repair her sandal which had had a blowout on the walk to the Ochre
Then it was dinner back at the tent and bed. But I couldn't help noticing
before we went to bed, several "muscle cars", such as a V8 Monaro, that
pulled up with a crunch and a cloud of dust, at a certain permanent-looking
caravan, in a corner of the park, near the exit to the local
About 10 pm we were woken by sounds of drunken revelry and loud rock music.
In particular AC/DC. You know, "Dirty deeds, done dirt cheap", "It's a long
way to the top". Real grinding, thumping, na naih na naih na naih stuff,
which is just great so long as you're not trying to sleep. I heard someone
yell at them to shut up, and there may have even been a visit from the
police, but they just started up again. At one stage it sounded like
someone was throwing rocks on their roof. I didn't think I could add
anything useful to a response like that.
About 2 am the music finally wound down and it sounded like the party-goers
had moved outside in preparation for going home. Unfortunately they didn't
go home, and instead we were treated to a drunken argument. The thing was,
we could only hear one side of the argument, this one particularly maudlin
drunk being _much_ louder than his protagonists. At one stage we heard,
"Youse guys are just treating me like I'm an idiot." I said quietly to
Janelle, "I should think the answer to that one is obvious". I felt like
sticking my head out of the tent and shouting, "Put AC/DC back
We're home now, so this will probably be the last story I write about the
trip. With this story I've filled in one gap and it's now complete from
Brisbane to Uluru, plus a couple of patches in WA, and the trip from Ceduna
to Lake Everard in SA to view the total eclipse. Alas, this represents only
a third of our trip. Needless to say we had many other adventures in WA,
the Nullarbor, SA, Vic, NSW, ACT and even Qld before returning home on
22-Dec-2002 after 87 days and 24,300 km.
I have many more high resolution photos in addition to the few which I felt
I could email at reduced resolution without causing objectionable download
times for your email. I'm happy to provide these on a CD if anyone is
interested, but hey, I'm no Steve Parish.
Some errata re Part whatever - Monkey Mia: A dolphin's melon is apparently
not a sonar receiving organ but an acoustic lens for focussing the
_sending_ of the sonar pulses. Receiving is at the inner ears via channels
in the lower jaw, or some such.
Part 5b: Alice Springs - East Macs - Desert Park - Kings Canyon
Saturday the 19th of October:
Slept in, washed clothes, took kids to pool. Janelle shopped.
We learnt that the Alice Springs Masters Games were on and Janelle played
squash in the afternoon. She had a hit with a guy, Brett Parry, who came
from Ceduna. Naturally Janelle mentioned that we were planning to watch the
total solar eclipse there on the 4th of December. He kindly offered to let
us camp at his place. This could be very useful since a _lot_ of people
will be going to Ceduna for the eclipse.
While Janelle was at squash the kids and I went to the pool (again) and
then the playground. I did some writing and had a long chat on the mobile
phone to my brother who kindly took advantage of a Telstra limited time
offer of 1 c per minute to any mobile on Saturdays.
That night I stayed back at the camp to write while Janelle and the the
kids enjoyed a free rock concert in Anzac Park. The comedy band Club Nerd
was followed by Jon English. Hunter wrote in his diary in big letters that
it was "EXTREME". I think that means it was extremely _good_. ;-)
Sunday the 20th of October:
Off to the East MacDonnells. At Emily Gap we saw some aboriginal paintings
relating to caterpillar dreaming, whatever that might mean. Then on we
drove to the next gap or gorge, whose name escapes me.
Oh god. Not more gorgeous gorges. I can't take it any more! But we saw them
all. By the last one, I'm afraid I was finding more interest in the
black-chimney toilet technology and the solar powered bore pump than the
[See Black chimney.jpg]
On one long straight in the road, we could see something big and strange
ahead. As we got closer we saw that it was four camels walking down the
road towards us with that slow plodding gait and those strangely jointed
legs that reminded me instantly of the walking machines in the opening
scene of Star Wars 4 (the first one released). We slowed right down to look
at them. They paid us no attention whatsover but merely parted to walk
around our van and met up on the other side. They were still plodding down
the road when we came thru on our way back.
That night we went to the tavern next door to the caravan park to see
reptile show. After the presenter had told us about their habits the kids
got to hold, or have crawl over them, a large (20 kg, 4 m) olive python, a
sleepy (or shingleback) lizard, a blue-tongue and a bearded
It was roast night at the tavern that night; crocodie, kangaroo, cow or
pig. We declined and went back to our camp where Janelle cooked one of her
excellent camp dinners.
Monday the 21st of October:
We visited a date farm and animal sanctuary which was a short walk from the
caravan park. Sitting at a table among the date palms we sampled several
varieties of date along with a cup of tea. The date palms were up to 100
years old and had been transplanted there from various places in the
Australian outback, having been grown originally from seed brought by
Afghan cameleers. They need a lot of bore water to grow in central
Australia. They say that date palms like their head in the fire but their
feet in the water. Tara got to help bottle-feed a joey (baby kangaroo)
whose mum had been killed by a car.
The Alice Springs Desert Park would have to be the hilight of this part of
the trip. When we first arrived in Alice we balked at the entry fees, not
knowing what it was like, but on talking to others who had been there we
decided to do it. It really was ecological edu-tainment at its best. Had we
visited it first we would have had a much better understanding of what we
were seeing on our drives and walks in the MacDonnells. As it was, we saw
central Australia through different eyes from then on. If you could only do
one thing in Alice Springs this would have to be it. Plan to spend a whole
day there. You can have lunch at the cafe or take your own. I suppose that
technically it is a kind of zoological and botanical garden, but it doesn't
seem like one; it's too real. I understand there is a similar park for the
wet tropics near Darwin.
Three major desert habitats are represented on the site. Desert rivers,
Woodlands, and Sand country (including salt lakes and claypans). In some
cases the habitat is artificially contructed and maintained, such as the
sand country created by transporting many tons of red sand to the site, and
fine mist sprinklers increasing the humidity for the rivers zone.
Each habitat zone had one or two aviaries, some were walk-in, and included
aquaria where relevant. Everything was labelled and simple explanations
were given on colourful and entertaining signs. There were also regular
explanation and question sessions by human guides, and the aboriginal point
of view was well represented.
[See Rainbow honeyeaters.jpg]
There is a huge nocturnal house where all kinds of mammals, reptiles and
insects can be seen doing their thing on apparently moonlit landscapes
behind glass. I assume they insulated this building well, otherwise the
air-conditioning bill would be astronomical.
The birds of prey show, in the open air was, like everything here, both
entertaining and educational. A Brown Buzzard using a rock to break fake
plaster emu eggs, Kites gobbling their food in flight within seconds of
catching it, and a Wedge-tailed Eagle swooping on a lure.
We left the movie until last; and what a finale! It tells the scientific
creation story for the MacDonnell Ranges in spectacular fashion, starting
with the Big Bang! I can't tell you how it ends, or I'd spoil the surprise,
in case you ever go there. Suffice it to say that I found it very moving
and sat stunned for some time after it ended. It would also be fine to see
the movie first, but the air conditioning was very welcome later in the
That night we went to the tavern near the campground again. This time it
was fish and chips night, plus a choice of desserts (that's the sweet food
not the dry places). The entertainment was a fellow called Chris who sang
and played his guitar, doing country music requests. Next morning we
planned to pack up camp and head south, leaving Alice.
Tuesday the 22nd of October:
Hunter vomited in the middle of the night. Luckily he made it outside the
tent, just. I got up and cleaned up the mess. [See Vomit.jpg, ... hee hee,
only joking!] In the morning Hunter was still feverish and not even keeping
water down, so he was in no condition to travel. Dehydration was a
While checking his temperature later in the day, with the digital clinical
thermometer from our first-aid kit, I was briefly confused by a reading of
39.8 degrees showing on the display before I'd even taken his temperature.
Back home I'm used to it always reading "Lo" at first. It had never ocurred
to me that a clinical thermometer might need to come _down_ from air
temperature to read someone's body temperature, even when they have a
fever. Fortunately this possibility did seem to have ocurred to the
designers of the thermometer. Thankfully Hunter showed some improvement by
the afternoon. We finally left Alice at 3:40 pm.
Although wary of gravel roads, we very briefly visited the Henbury
Meteorite Craters which are only 15 km off the Stuart Highway. It was
perhaps a bit irresponsible, but given Hunter's condition, we left the two
kids in the van with the air conditioner (and hence the engine) running
while Janelle and I jogged (yes, in the heat) out to the largest crater
(about 50 m dia) and around its rim, which at one point is also the rim of
an adjacent smaller crater. It was interesting to see the different
vegetation growing on the somewhat shetered and more moist floors of the
We camped the night in a rest area 169 km south of Alice. We unexpectedly
had CDMA phone service which turned out to be from Erlunda Roadhouse 32 km
south. It was in red sand country with a strong wind blowing.
Some other folk were camped there in a caravan. We didn't talk to them then
but happened to meet up with them days later at our first real salt lake.
We learned they had travelled from WA on the Gunbarrel Highway. Their
description of it sounded very much like the "highway" to Boodjamulla (Lawn
Hill) [See part 4]. It isn't recommended for towing a caravan. But hey,
they were retired and didn't have to be anywhere at any particular time. In
the end, they took 8 days to drive 1000 km, driving an average of 9 hours
per day. That's an average driving speed of 14 km/h. The wife told how, on
finally reaching the bitumen again, her husband got out and kissed
Wednesday the 23rd of October:
Hunter had pretty much recovered from his bout of "gastro".
We visited Watarrka National Park (Kings Canyon). We all did the short walk
up the bottom of the canyon, which didn't strike me, and certainly not the
kids, as particularly spectacular or interesting. But maybe we were
starting to take such things for granted by this time.
[See Kings Canyon.jpg]
Janelle wanted to do the walk around the top of the cliffs which the
information board said was a 3 to 4 hour walk. There were plenty of other
people doing it. I agreed to keep the kids occupied while she did
There was an ice-cream van in the carpark to coincide with the bus tours,
so that was our first stop after waving Janelle goodbye. Then we hopped in
the Tarago and drove off to look at the Kings Canjyon Caravan Park,
thinking we might stay there that night. It was an utterly unnatural oasis
of green lawns in the middle of this desert. Then we drove back to a picnic
shed that was a few hundred metres down the road from the carpark to which
Janelle would be returning. We had a leisurely lunch and then Hunter played
Tara and me at backgammon, using a travel set Hunter had been given for his
birthday. I figured Janelle wouldn't be back in under 2.5 hours.
When we got back to the carpark we learned that Janelle had completed the
walk in 1.5 hours with no great stress and had been waiting there for us
for the past hour while we'd been eating drinking and playing backgammon
just down the road. The poor woman hadn't even been able to buy herself an
ice-cream since we had her wallet, but had passed the time chatting to an
assortment of international tourists. The sign saying 3 to 4 hours must
have been for geriatrics and four year olds!
She pronounced the walk as well worth doing, with great views, strange
pancake-stack rock formations and waterholes. Ah well, I might have to wait
for another lifetime.
Our next sight-seeing destination was Uluru a little over 300 km away.
Since there was plenty of daylight left, we decided not to camp at Kings
Canyon, but to drive on.
Here are a couple of random observations from the trip in
1. Don't ever rely on anything self-adhesive when planning a trip through
outback Australia. e.g. Self-adhesive backed velcro for holding the
flyscreens to the window surrounds or the microphone to the door pillars,
or double-sided tape to hold a compass to the dashboard or a blind-spot
mirror to the main mirror. These adhesives are just very viscous liquids,
that become a lot less viscous and start to flow under the temperatures
experienced in the outback. Use real glues that actually dry or harden,
such as contact cement, superglue or araldite.
2. Australian informational sign makers are apparently illiterate, never
getting anyone else to proofread their signs before putting them on public
display and never correcting them afterwards. Spelling mistakes were rife.
I wish now that I'd recorded them all. It would make for amusing reading if
it wasn't for the thought of what impression it must give, of Australians,
to international visitors. But perhaps I'm just exposing my pedantic nature
Part 6: Uluru - Kata Tjuta
We camped at the free campground at Curtin Springs Roadhouse 105 km from
Uluru. The campground was a dustbowl sprinkled with River Redgums, but hey,
what do you expect for free. However there were toilets and drinking water
provided (brackish borewater) and unlimited-time (but very grubby-looking)
showers for $1 on the honour system.
By the way, in all showers I've been in, in all the outback of "the driest
continent on earth", I have never yet seen anything even remotely
resembling a low-flow showerhead. Nor do any of the buildings or
shade-structures demonstrate any recognition that the sun basically passes
from east to west across the sky!
And few (none?) of these remote roadhouses seem to have taken advantage of
the rebate schemes for photovoltaics. Instead diesel generators can be
heard hammering away day and night. The one renewable technology that seems
to have made it out here is solar water heating, but even after (how many?)
decades it's far from universal.
Tara was completely taken with the idea of the one hour camel ride that was
on offer at Curtin Springs. Not just the 5 minute ride around the yard.
That's kid stuff. She's done that before at school fetes. We were too late
for the sunset ride to Mt Connor, an enormous flat-topped mesa about the
same height as and larger in area than Uluru, but of different geology. So
next morning we hung around for the 9 am ride, only to learn that they
weren't running it that day. So Tara only had the yard ride after all. But
the cameleer, Mark, didn't want any payment for it, by way of apology for
not running the longer ride. Tara was quite disappointed, but took it quite
well really, for a 4 year old who had really had her heart set on
We filled up with unleaded at $1.20 per litre and drove on to
Kata Tjuta, briefly renamed The Olgas by ignorant white-fellas, is of the
same geology as Uluru but consists of multiple "domes" with clefts between
them. [Photo 6.1] Signs, and the brochure we received when we paid our $32
entry fee, had impressed upon us the sacredness of the area to its Anangu
owners, and how various places were connected with creation-time ancestors
in various animal forms. You are forbidden to even photograph certain
places. The longer walks were all closed on account of the projected
temperature, but we did a short walk to one place where there was an echo
between parallel rock walls. I found it particularly incongruous that
Janelle should be yelling at the kids in such a place, and told her so. (Of
course I do my share of yelling at them elsewhere. :-)
The kids were basically whining about having to walk in the midday heat to
see yet another bunch of old rocks when they could instead be back in the
Tarago, with the engine running to keep the air conditioner going, and
playing their Gameboys(TM) (or is that Gameboy(TM)s?). In case anyone was
wondering, it's totally fine to ignore all the warnings that come with your
Gameboy(TM) about not using rechargeable batteries. Ours have been working
the whole time on solar-recharged Nickel Metal-Hydrides.
On the walk back, Janelle pointed out that a particular formation of two
holes and a grey stain on the reddish rock looked just like a smiley-face.
I laughed and told her she'd now completely ruined my attempts to maintain
the solemnity required of a sacred place. "Consider it as a church", it
said in the brochure.
A little later as we were driving alongside Kata Tjuta, she helpfully
pointed out how another rock formation looked just like a dog. Might this
be creation-ancestor in dingo form? No, in fact it was Snoopy, of the comic
While we're on the subject of trashy western culture, I should mention that
Janelle later suggested a range of Barbie stories based in central
Australia. We all worked on some possible titles:
"Barbie gets dry skin",
"Barbie gets cracked heels",
"Barbie gets nose-bleeds" (from picking it so often because the mucus dries
so fast, and so far up your nose, that if you didn't, you soon wouldn't be
able to breathe, and anyway you need a major mining operation when you wake
up every morning),
"Barbie poisons a waterhole" (with all the cosmetics and sunscreen and
deodorant she's wearing when she swims in it),
"Barbie gets terminal sunburn",
"Barbie can't wait to get back to somewhere where they actually have
weather", etc. etc.
From Kata Tjuta we drove towards Uluru. There is definitely something
weird about that huge, apparently smooth rock, just rising straight out of
the plain with absolutely no kind of geographical announcement that it's
about to do so. The kids even looked up from their Gameboys and without
prompting said things like "Wow! Look at that!".
You might think that the unannounced nature of it's arising is only an
appearance from a distance, but no, you walk right up to the base of the
thing and, apart from a few rock-falls, even on the scale of a few
centimetres you can stand with your back to the rock and see the same flat
sand and spinifex that there is for hundreds of kilometres around, and then
you turn around and there's "The Rock", towering over you. It's like "Where
the f___ did that thing come from!".
At about the middle of the otherwise excellent 30 page brochure, you read
that you should visit the Anangu Cultural Centre first. So off we went, to
visit it second. The main message that I took away from this centre is
"Don't take photographs", since a sign saying this appeared on practically
every post and wall. I had already read this about 5 times in the brochure
and so I had left the camera in the car. But after being told it so many
more times, I went back to the car, got the camera, and smuggled it in to
take just one shot. [Photo 6.2]
The other message I got was that although they can't tell us very much of
their culturally-transmitted place-specific survival-religion (because a
major part of that religion is that it can be taught only to their own
people), could we please accept that it is worth preserving, and therefore
could we please respect their requests not to visit or photograph certain
places. One tricky bit is that some places are so sacred they can't even
tell us where they are so we can avoid them. So we'd best just stick to the
marked tracks. Fair enough I thought, particularly since it's good enough
for the World Heritage Commission to have declared that not only the place
but the people and their culture should be preserved as a world
Later we made and enjoyed cold vege hot-dogs while watching Uluru as the
sun set behind us; along with several hundred other people and their
vehicles, in a car-park specially set up for the purpose (of watching Uluru
at sunset that is, not eating cold vege hot-dogs). [Photo 6.3] Then it was
rush-hour as all these vehicles left the park. There's no camping inside
Just outside the park, most of these vehicles turned into the Yulara resort
and campground, leaving only us and one other vanload of cheapskates
heading for the free camping at a roadside rest-area 28 km away. When we
got there we decided it was a bit too "roadside" and so we drove the
further 56 km back to the free campground at Curtin Springs
It's standard the world over, to open a conversation with a stranger, or
someone you haven't seen for a while, by commenting on the weather. How do
people cope out here, when there isn't any? Tiny variations in temperature
must take on enormous importance. "They say it's only gunna get to 42
today" (instead of the 43 we've been having for the past 2 weeks), or "Hey
did you see that little cloud this morning, away off in the
Seriously, the mornings are quite pleasant here, until about 11 am, but
after that my own culturally-transmitted place-specific survival-religion
definitely involves air-conditioning.
Next morning, Tara finally got her one hour camel ride through the desert.
After a lovely scrambled egg breakfast, she was dancing about in
anticipation of the ride. [Photo 6.4] On her triumphant return, she
admitted it was "a bit scary at first". [Photo 6.5] It's so true that much
of the pleasure of such things is in the anticipation, because she was
immediately miserable that it was now over, and the prospects of the next
one were somewhat remote. She was consoled by our positive answer to her
question about whether she could be a jillaroo riding a horse on a cattle
station when she grows up.
I can't help wondering if the camels, having evolved in North Africa, find
it freaky that the sand dunes here are so _red_. I sure do.
Part whatever: Monkey Mia
At about 5 pm on Thursday the 14th of November we arrived at Monkey Mia in
the Shark Bay World Heritage Area, 800 km North of Perth. Shark Bay is an
area of outstanding scenic beauty with its many bays and islets and coastal
cliffs. It also has many other World Heritage values that I won't go into
here. But of course the world knows the particular bay of Monkey Mia
because of the regular shore visits by wild bottlenose dolphins.
We expected that the camping fee at the only (privately run)
caravan-park/camp-ground would be steep, but we were pleasantly surprised
($17). It may well be higher in peak tourist season. But before we could
drive into the campground there was a $12 entry fee payable to Conservation
and Land Management (CALM), the West Australian government body that
manages national parks. After having the unique experience on offer here,
no one could begrudge this, knowing that the funds will be used to keep it
possible for others to experience it into the forseeable future.
We learnt from the brochure that the dolphin visitations occur between 8 am
and 1 pm and so we carefully studied the rituals required of us, in
preparation for the next morning.
At first the camping area seemed crowded and the "creeping log
disease" looked like making it difficult for us. Creeping log disease
what Mum calls the low log fences designed to keep vehicles off the
(theoretically) grassed areas set aside for tents. We sometimes feel we are
some strange camping animal that can't quite be classified as a campervan,
since we don't need a powered site (thanks to our solar power system) and
because we have our kitchen and one bedroom outside the van (not a pop-up,
but sort of a pop-sideways), and we're not quite tent campers either
because we want the tent awning coupled to the side of the van. But in this
case we ended up with one of the nicest camps of the trip, as you'll see in
the last photo.
We had a lovely swim in the swimming pool followed by the hot tub. The hot
tub didn't need heating because it used artesian bore water (which has to
be ahroed for drinking (ahr-o' = R.O. = desalinate by Reverse Osmosis).
Monkey Mia and the nearby town of Denham are not on the grid and obtain 60%
of their electricity from three 230 kW German-made Enercon wind turbines.
The remainder comes from three diesel generators which are automatically
started as needed when the wind drops. Starts and stops due to short term
fluctuations are eliminated by three motor-generators coupled to large
flywheels. So, since it was reasonably windy, we were almost certainly
drinking water ahroed by wind energy.
When we got back to our camp after our swim I noticed some young new
arrivals with a guitar and (uh oh!) a bodhran (you know, one of those
hand-held celtic drums). I said to Janelle "I hope they don't keep us awake
tonight". By the way, It seems no one can agree on how to pronounce
"bodhran", except that everyone agrees that you don't pronounce the
Have you heard the one about the guy who walks into a pub in Northern
Ireland and puts a bag down on the bar. The bartender looks tense, and says
to him slowly a hoarse whisper, "What have you got in the bag?". The guy
answers "Two kilograms of Semtex" (a plastic explosive). The bartender
relaxes, wipes the sweat off his brow and says, "Phew, for a moment there I
thought it was a bodhran".
We fell alseep to guitar playing and singing. It was of very high quality
and they were peaceful songs. However they were apparently lulling us into
a false sense of security as we were woken at about 10 pm by loud bodhran
playing. Luckily it was short lived and things seemed to taper off after
that, so I read a book and eventually fell asleep again, only to be woken
around 1 am by two guys, probably pissed, talking loudly to each other and
laughing hysterically, just outside our tent. This was too much. I got out
of bed and went outside, but there was no one to be seen. Then one of them
spoke again. It came from inside a small dome tent. I walked over to the
tent and said as calmly as I could "Do you think you could shut up so the
rest of us can get some sleep". Dead silence. Then another tent spoke, just
like the other one. So I walked over to it and repeated my apparently
magical incantation, only this time I felt like being a little more polite
and said "be quiet" in place oif "shut up". This tent replied with repeated
apologies of "Sorry mate", and neither were heard from again. Hoorah. And
the best thing was, none of us had to feel embarrassed about it in the
morning since we didn't know what each other looked like.
So next morning after breakfast we headed for the dolphin interaction area
along with over a hundred others, some bussed in from nearby Denham. We
were told how we should stand knee deep in the water and form as straight a
line as possible to maximise the chances for everyone to have a dolphin
pass close to them, and to maximise the ability for everyone to see what
was happening elsewhere along the line. We were also told that the rangers
(CALM officers) would choose a few people at random to step forward and
hand-feed a fish to one of the dolphins.
It seemed like it might be a long wait so we took the kids up to see the
displays that told us all about the dolphins. We learned that thanks to
scientists we know roughly how much fish these dolphin need to eat each day
and so they are never fed more than 8% of this amount on any visit,
although they may be fed up to three times a day if they choose to come
back. It is illegal to feed dolphins anywhere else in the bay or outside of
the supervion of CALM officers. The dolphins can all be recognised by the
patterns of nicks and holes in their dorsal fins and have been given names
like "Nicky" and "Pip". The amount eaten by each is recorded at each
visitation. Juveniles are never fed, only adult dolphins. All this ensures
that the dolphins do not become dependent on humans and they continue to
teach their young how to fish, _as_well_as_ how to get the free
We also learnt that they hate being stroked on the head since their
blowhole is there and that's what they breathe thru. And just inside their
"forehead" is their "melon" which is the receiving organ for their
sonar-imaging sense. So imagine a complete stranger coming up to you and
trying to rub their hand over your nose and poke you in the ears (or is it
eyes?). In the early days people wondered why they were getting bitten. We
were discouraged from stroking them at all, but if we did it should be on
Finally the call came. The dolphins were coming! So we made our way back to
the line. Janelle looked after the kids while I looked after the
photography. The rangers allow the dolphins to mill about and check us out
for quite a while before feeding them, and another dolphin arrived during
this time for a total of four. The first of the attached photos is the best
of 10 or so I took from the nearby jetty. Tara is the little girl to
Hunter's right (your left), not the one in similar swimmers to his
Eventually I felt like "Hey, I've seen this on TV before, and now I'm here
I'm still seing it on TV!". So after a while I had to get out from behind
the viewfinder and actually _be_ there. Which is why I have no photos of
the dolphins passing close enough to touch. However, when Hunter was chosen
to feed a dolphin, of course I whipped out the camera again as you can see
in the second photo!
When it was all over, Tara insisted on phoning Margo (my mum) straight away
to tell her all about it. Janelle asked Hunter if it was even better than
his Gameboy. His unhesitating reply? "Yes!". High praise from Hunter. The
third photo shows us eating a relaxed lunch at our camp after the
experience of a lifetime.
Then it was time to pack up and head north to Carnarvon and eventually
So long and thanks for the fish.
The phone box at the end of the world.
I couldn't resist the attached photograph. Finding a public phone box at
this remote place seemed so incongruous. This must be the western-most
phone box on the Australian mainland. Point Quobba is not quite the
western-most point of Australia, but it's the western-most point reachable
by sealed roads and so represents the western-most point of our
Note Point Quobba Lighthouse in the background and the residence two thirds
of the way up the antenna pole. I can see the real-estate ad. Translated
from the birdish: "Great views, close to essential services".
There were also some great blowholes near here. Holes only about 200 mm
across where the air roars out of them just before the water hits and
Part x: The Total Eclipse
[Warning: Looking at solar eclipse photos is a complete waste of your time,
so you won't find any here. If you really want to look at some, try
We were fortunate to be able to camp in Ceduna at the house of Brett Perry
and Brenda Canning. Janelle happened to meet Brett when she played squash
in Alice Springs some weeks ago. They're a very generous family who, in
addition to us, took in a young couple who had flown from the Gold Coast to
Ceduna to see the eclipse. Desiree was originally from Canada and Gabriel
After a very windy night I crawled out of the tent on "E day" to greet a
very cloudy sky and a strong breeze blowing off the Southern Ocean. Things
didn't look too good for viewing the eclipse that afternoon. I sat in the
van with the laptop and cellphone and looked up the satellite photos and
predictions from the Bureau of Meteorology. The prediction for Ceduna, and
up to about 30 km inland, was for scattered cloud (about 1/8 cover). But
when you are viewing close to the horizon (10 deg alt) this is
The skies were essentially guaranteed to be clear 100 km or more inland
along the path of totality. Some rapid consulting of maps showed that the
nearest place accessible without a four-wheel drive, was between Lake
Everard and Lake Gairdner, two large salt lakes, via about 90 km of bitumen
and 180 km of dirt, north-west of Ceduna. I phoned my friend Phil Calais
who we'd stayed with in Perth. At my request, he very kindly emailed me the
1:250,000 scale contour maps of the route.
Janelle and the kids decided they weren't keen on such a trip and were
willing to take their chances in Ceduna, so Janelle asked Desiree and
Gabriel if they would like to go with me. Would they ever! They hadn't come
all this way to risk missing the eclipse, if they could help it.
The trip was very educational for them even without the eclipse. When we
passed the first dry salt lake with its brilliant white crust sparkling in
the soon-to-be-strangely-altered sunshine, they said "What was that!". So
we stopped at the next one to have a look.
About three hours later the odometer said we were within a few kilometres
of the centreline and we started seeing more tents and vehicles, so we
looked for a high spot where we could get off the road without risk of
getting bogged in the deep dry dust that passes for soil out here. We
followed some other vehicles into a side road that looked promising, and on
cresting the hill, we knew we were there! And so were hundreds of others.
Even without an eclipse, the view to the west-south-west was starkly
beautiful, with the red soil and mulga bushes in the foreground, a dry lake
bed off to one side with a field of huge white sand dunes (av. ht. 11 m)
receding into the distance, and a clear blue sky in every
We walked around and chatted to some others. I introduced myself a couple
of times with the joke, "I suppose you're here for the fishing too".
Gabriel saw someone with the same kind of video camera as himself and asked
what filter the man was using. It was home made from a piece of cardboard
tube with aluminised mylar film taped over it. I told Gabriel I could make
him one and we dashed back to the van and got out the first aid kit. Three
layers of emergency blanket were soon taped to a cardboard tube using
surgical tape and he was in business.
A cry went up when someone noticed that the first little piece of the sun
had gone missing. So we donned our eclipse shades and started watching.
Someone near us said "So we've got the right day then." Laughter. The wind
blasted at us on this totally exposed hillside. It happened to be coming
from the WSW, the direction of the sun, which was now only about a handspan
above the horizon. I realise now, that this wind direction added
subliminally to the awesomeness of the event, as if it were further
evidence the sun's power.
Science tells us, that if you want to see a star's corona with your naked
eye it is very important to have been born on planet Earth. That a planet's
star and its satellite should be the same apparent size when viewed from
the planet's surface, is an extraordinary piece of luck.
The scientific explanation, while invaluable in telling us when and where
to go to have this amazing experience, is utterly useless when it comes to
trying to convey to another human being what the experience is
This business about the moon moving in front of the sun is obvious
nonsense. The moon is white and grey, or maybe a bit yellow or reddish
sometimes. This thing was utterly black. And what of the awesome apparition
that sprang into existence, at the instant that the blackness finished its
job of eating the sun? To say that this is a part of the sun that we don't
normally see, is meaningless. It is clearly a third heavenly body, not the
sun, not the moon. One that only appears to the few who are willing to
undertake the pilgrimage to one of the sacred sites and to be there at the
sacred moment. To call it "totality" or "the total eclipse" is inadequate
and even ugly. It needs a proper name. Let's call it "Aurielle" for now, as
in aura, aurora, auriole.
Trying to convey this experience in words, to another human who hasn't
experienced it, is about as useful as describing colours to a person blind
from birth. I know. I read about it and looked at photos and movies before
seeing the real thing. All they did was make me more interested to
experience it for myself, which is one reason why I am persisting in this
futile effort of writing. Inventing a new name for it also discourages you
from thinking you already know what I mean.
One thing that makes it nearly impossible to capture the experience on film
(and one reason I didn't bother trying) is that the human eye/brain system
can, in effect, simultaneously zoom in on Aurielle while taking a wide
angle on the surrounding landscape.
But there's a lot more to the total experience than that. Here's another
aspect: It's the very fact that it's so rare and ephemeral that makes it so
awe-inspiring. Few people in our culture seem to understand this. When, for
example, we come upon a striking view of some rugged coastline or mountains
we'll build a house with huge windows overlooking it, whereupon we will
soon cease to appreciate it, or even notice it. I was struck by Christopher
Alexander's description of a particular Zen Monastery that had a high wall
deliberately obscuring a magnificent view, except for one tiny window that
one only passed by on the way to and from the bathroom. It took your breath
away every time.
So Aurielle hung there in the sky in front of us for only thirty seconds.
Thirty seconds I'll never forget. I gave up a few of those precious seconds
to turn right around once and observe the strange twilight landscape around
me, and the silent awestruck faces of the other watchers. I turned back to
see Aurielle again for a few seconds before several blinding dots on her
lower left edge grew rapidly and merged together, instantly obliterating
her. One very Aussie very exuberant young woman near us called out to the
sky, "Aw mate! Stop!".
Although some of us watching may have earlier made jokes about
eclipse-junkies (those people who chase eclipses all over the world), I
think that all of us, in those seconds after her dissapearance, immediately
understood how one could become addicted to this experience.
Then it was congratulations all round, for the fact that we'd made it
there, and seen it. Hand shakes and hugs. We'd shared something special. We
listened to the ABC news from Ceduna and let out a cheer when we learned
that that a large cloud gap had moved into place for them at the critical
moment. Janelle told me later that everyone at Ceduna had pretty much
resigned themselves to not seeing it, so when the gap revealed the rapidly
disapearing sliver of sun, and then totality, a spontaneous cheer rose up
along the waterfront.
We didn't stay to watch the still partially occluded sun setting, since I
wanted to drive as much of the dirt road as possible in daylight. But as we
drove along, Desiree and Gabriel could continue to watch it thru their
eclipse glasses. I stole glances at it when it was below the tops of the
trees some distance from the road. Because of our motion relative to the
trees the crescent shape was easily perceived, and as is the case with a
full-moon seen near the horizon, it looked huge. The last we saw of it was
one triangular cusp as it dissappeared from view. Strange stuff.
After sunset, we played Yothu Yindi and Midnight Oil CDs loud as we drove.
A couple of hours down the road, when it was completely dark, we stopped to
photograph a bizarre yellow warning sign that said, "Greeks next 1 km", and
we ate Dolmades and looked at the desert night sky. With the vehicle lights
off, and when there were no other vehicles passing, the stars and the
silence were awesome. The Magellanic clouds were plainly visible. I really
had the feeling that I was looking at a vast dome with millions of lights
in it. After that, loud rock music seemed somehow less appropriate and we
listened to Clannad's 'Celtic Collection'. Pink Floyd's 'Wish You Were
Here', accompanied by a continuously glowing fuel warning light, saw us
back to Ceduna and bed by 1 am. What a day!